Green Energy Advocates Lobby L.A. County to Reduce Solar Permit Fees

The county recently reduced its fees for residents who want to install solar panels on their homes — and it's considering doing the same thing for businesses

By Justin Chapman, Altadena Patch, 7/20/2011

Installing solar panels just got a little cheaper for residents of unincorporated Los Angeles County, thanks in part to recent lobbying efforts by the Sierra Club and other green energy advocates.
The county recently reduced its solar panel permit fees for residents — and it is now considering lowering its fees for businesses, according to officials with the Department of Public Works, the agency responsible for setting the permit rates.
Bob Spencer, a spokesperson for the county's Department of Public Works, told Patch in a phone interview that the county recently worked with the Sierra Club and other consultants to lower its residential fees from $1,144 to $370. That brings the fees below $512 — the average of a recent study of local solar fees conducted by the Sierra Club (attached to this article as a PDF file to the right).
Advocates have been arguing that state law requires solar permit fees to be minimal and standardized. Right now fees vary widely, and they believe that most local jurisdictions are overcharging residents and businesses, according to Kurt Newick, the Sierra Club's Global Warming and Energy Committee Chair of the Loma Prieta Chapter.
The Sierra Club has been lobbying cities and counties up and down the state for the past two years to lower their fees, and released its study showing that solar permit fees in cities across LA County and the county itself vary widely, ranging from $0 in some jurisdictions and up to tens of thousands of dollars in others.
The county itself is now below average for residential fees and just slightly higher than average for commercial fees.
"We had been thinking about reducing the fees around the time the Sierra Club did their survey," said Spencer. "We were already discussing fee reduction anyway because we think it's important for both the county and the state to encourage people to invest in these kinds of energy saving and green energy alternatives."
Spencer said the county looked at a combination of things when they reduced the residential fees.
"We were trying to recover our administrative costs for servicing the permits, and we've looked at reducing the processing time down from about eight weeks to possibly three weeks to review the permits when they come in," he said. "But our biggest concern was lowering the fees for permits for residents."
He added that the county is currently looking at reducing the commercial fees, but there is no official timeline yet and no final decision has been made.
"There's been no final decision on that yet on whether or not we can reduce commercial fees in unincorporated areas, and if we can, by how much," he said.
The county governs about 65 unincorporated communities, including Altadena and small pockets of San Gabriel Valley.
Not only is the county working on lowering rates in its unincorporated areas, but it is working with the Sierra Club, the LA Basin Chapter of the International Code Council and the City of Los Angeles to standardize permit guidelines to enable all cities in LA County to have a streamlined solar permit submittal process and make it easier to lower their fees.
"We're aware of those efforts and we have been working with them," said Spencer. "Our discussions in this entire area of making solar panels an alternative for everyone continue."
However, this is no easy task, he added.
"When you have the county and 88 cities, it's not an easy task to standardize these things across the board. You may find some cities that are reluctant to reduce their fees. It's difficult to get 89 agencies to all agree on the same thing. It's very comprehensive. But we're absolutely working with the Sierra Club and these other consultants to see if we can get that done."
Some nearby cities are far above average for both residential and commercial solar permit fees. , with a residential fee rate of $1,088, and a commercial rate of $13,081.
Altadena's neighbor to the east, Sierra Madre, is also above average with a residential rate of $515 and a commercial rate of $37,349. However, a  after Patch and other news outlets published stories about the high fees in San Marino in other cities.
Newick said cities such as San Marino are "blatantly overcharging" their residents and business owners and also accused them of possibly violating the intent of state law, which requires minimum solar permit fees.
Newick explained that the Sierra Club, in the online Excel program included in the study, specifically developed a permit fee calculation methodology that documents what a permit fee must be for cost recovery.
"But for solar project evaluations, it is not right to base it on evaluation tables," said Newick. "It's basically violating the spirit of state law. It's also been shown in a court of law that (using evaluation tables is) invalid. Cities are not for-profit organizations."
According to Newick, the appropriate solar fee level is whatever a city needs to recover its costs, and not a penny more. He said that $200 to $350 for residential projects and $300 to $3,000 for commercial projects would be appropriate, depending on the size of the project. He added that cities are starting to change because the value of a solar project does not correlate with the resources to permit a system, but it's a slow process.
For that process to happen, however, Newick said that it's really crucial that local jurisdictions complement state and federal solar incentives by having reasonable permit processes and fees, so there's not a bottleneck to getting solar systems installed in their cities.
"They're trying to standardize what these permits look like in order to get them done more accurately and to lower costs," said Newick, referring to those consultants who are trying to standardize permit guidelines across the county. "That's really going to be the solution here."

The Future of West Altadena Redevelopment is Still Up in the Air

Though the state budget that has been passed eliminates funding for redevelopment agencies, LA County redevelopment officials are still waiting for figures from the state's Finance Department on what it will cost the county to keep the agency

By Justin Chapman, Altadena Patch, 7/12/2011

Despite Governor Jerry Brown's proposals to cut back funding for local redevelopment, a plan which could affect Altadena's ability to improve the Lincoln Corridor area, something of a compromise was reached when the state legislature approved the budget June 28 and there are still options for keeping redevelopment agencies intact.
From the standpoint of those redevelopment agencies, however, it wasn't much of a compromise.  The budget plan calls for redevelopment agencies to stay intact on the condition that "their establishing cities or counties agree to (come up with their share of) $1.7 billion in payments to K‑12 schools."
In other words, city and county governments can keep redevelopment agencies as long as they pay for it out of their own pockets.
The primary purpose of redevelopment agencies is to improve local economies by spurring commercial development in local towns.  In Altadena's case, redevelopment funds helped to build the Lincoln Crossing commercial development in West Altadena.
But many have also been critical of the misuse of redevelopment funds, as well as prioritizing commercial development over funding schools and other governmental functions.
So far, the California Redevelopment Association has stated that at least 50 of its statewide agencies have already said they cannot afford to make the payments that would keep them in existence.

Redevelopment in L.A. County
LA County's Community Development Commission, which services Altadena, is not yet one of those agencies because they are still waiting on the official figures from the California Department of Finance explaining what it would cost to keep the agency intact, according to Corde Carrillo, the CDC's Director of Economic Development and Redevelopment.
"We're going to wait for the actual numbers to come in from the Department of Finance before we would feel comfortable in preparing our informational memorandum to the Board of Supervisors," said Carrillo. "We expect to get those numbers by August 1. That's when we would have sufficient information to prepare a recommendation to our board."

What it Means for Altadena
It's not clear what all these actions will mean for the West Altadena Project Area Committee (WAPAC), the publicly-funded Altadena board which makes recommendations to the county on how to use redevelopment funds in the Lincoln Corridor.
After the county's CDC receives the amounts it would have to commit to in order to maintain redevelopment agencies in August, the CDC will prepare a recommendation to the Board of Supervisors, who will have the final say on whether or not the county can afford to pay its portion to the state in order to keep its RDA running. Furthermore, the process could last until November 1, when the county's ordinance to the state is due.
If the supervisors decide that the county cannot afford to pay its share and the CDC is dismantled, there would be no need for the WAPAC, and West Altadena would have one less advisory body looking out for its business interests.
The area that WAPAC covers makes up 80 acres centered around the intersection of Lincoln and Woodbury. The agency was adopted in 1986, and its main achievement was bringing in the Lincoln Crossing development, which transformed a blighted area into a successful shopping development (though it has ). A map of the redevelopment project area is attached to this article.

Legal Backlash
Both Carrillo and Bill Johnson, the CDC's representative to WAPAC, said that state lawyers for the legislature have told lawmakers before the budget was passed that elimination of redevelopment agencies could violate the California constitution. Some county's are already preparing for litigation against the state, according to the San Jose Mercury News.
"The lawyers in the state legislature have issued an opinion that this transfer of local funds, because that's what tax increment is, to the state would violate the state constitution," said Johnson. "Meaning it would be illegal to do that. But the legislature doesn't always listen to their lawyers."

Altadena Without Redevelopment
So what would all this mean for West Altadena if WAPAC gets dismantled?
"There would be one less advisory body to speak for the redevelopment area community," said Carrillo. "The Town Council is responsible for all of Altadena, so they would maybe look at the West Altadena area, and there might be members of them to speak about West Altadena in an advisory capacity. If the community wanted to, they could ask for another type of organization to speak for them or the business community in particular. It's certainly a possibility to have a privately funded entity to replace WAPAC."
Allan Wasserman, a member of the Altadena Town Council and that advisory body's representative on WAPAC, is also supportive of a privately funded entity with similar goals as WAPAC if it goes under.
"West Altadena would probably try to recreate a private form of it," said Wasserman. "Something that's not state sanctioned, but an independent committee, probably financed by private individuals. They could reemerge themselves as a private entity that stays involved with the community."
WAPAC was formed because West Altadena requested a PAC when the county first formed a redevelopment area. Supervisor Michael Antonovich was supportive of it. PACs have to be constituted within redevelopment law. Their members are elected and they cover business owners, property owners, retail, homeowners, and other neighborhood associations.
"We provide administrative services for WAPAC," explained Carrillo. "We're a county support; we don't sit on WAPAC. The committee is made up of community leaders and has its own bylaws."

Sierra Club Official Criticizes City's Defense of High Solar Fees

Kurt Newick of the Sierra Club called San Marino's solar permit fees "blatant overcharging" and suggested the city may even be in violation of the spirit of state law

By Justin Chapman, San Marino Patch, 7/8/2011

After Director of the city's Planning and Building Department Dave Saldaña responded to a Sierra Club study showing San Marino's residential solar panel installation fees as the third highest in the county and its commercial fees above average, Sierra Club representative Kurt Newick found little common ground with Saldaña's explanations.  
See the Sierra Club study, which evaluated 42 Los Angeles County cities, as a PDF to the right.
Newick, Sierra Club's Global Warming and Energy Committee Chair of the Loma Prieta Chapter, still thinks San Marino is overcharging its residents and business owners who want to install solar projects and thus discouraging people from filing for permits to do so.
"The residential permit process for a 3 kilowatt solar installation runs an average of $512," the Sierra Club said in its report.
Los Angeles's rate is $248--down from $308 in 2009.
San Marino is ranked as having the third highest fee in the county at $1,088 (see table to the right), behind Irwindale and Lawndale.

Calculating Fees
Saldaña told Patch in the that despite the Sierra Club sending emails to San Marino to encourage the city to lower fees and provide more solar installation incentive for residents and businesses, San Marino has not lowered its fees because for more than 20 years they have based their fees on individual project evaluations, using a table that tells the permit technician who conducts the evaluation how much the fee should be.
Newick called the city's fees "blatant overcharging" of residents and business owners. He also accused the city of possibly violating state laws.
"Their fees are way too high," Newick said, referring to San Marino. "For residential evaluations it takes two to four hours. It should be a fixed fee to enable cost recovery for two to four hours of city staff time to do the inspection and permit review. Cities are starting to change because the value of a solar project does not correlate with the resources needed to permit a system."
Newick explained that the Sierra Club, in the online Excel program included in the study, specifically developed a permit fee calculation methodology that documents what a permit fee must be for cost recovery. The table method that San Marino uses to evaluate project fees may be better suited for other projects, Newick said.
"But for solar project evaluations, it is not right to base it on evaluation tables," said Newick. "It's basically violating the intent of state law, which requires minimum solar permit fees. It's also been shown in a court of law that it's invalid. Cities are not for-profit organizations. San Marino is in blatant violation of overcharging for installation fees."
One of Saldaña's claims that Newick agreed with is that commercial projects should have an increased fee, though Newick disagreed with how much that fee should be.
"The same evaluation process applies to commercial permits as residential, except maybe more so because there are a greater number of people in a commercial building," Saldaña told Patch in an earlier interview. "There's going to be more time spent so the inspection will take longer as well. You're going to have a higher cost evaluation. Proportionally it should be an increased fee."
Although Newick agreed that some commercial projects can be quite large, and so the city should charge more for a permit fee than a smaller residential project, he disagreed with Saldaña's argument that San Marino has higher permit fees than other cities because San Marino also requires a fire marshal to inspect solar panel projects for safety reasons such as ensuring adequate roof space is left in case a fire occurs in the future and the fire department needs to axe through the roof.
"That separates San Marino from other cities, because I don't think other cities include that as part of the fees," said Saldaña regarding the fire marshal. "Therefore we don't feel it would be appropriate to lower the fees."
Newick disagreed with this assessment. He said that's largely unnecessary because the city planners and permit technicians are adequately prepared to determine how much space is needed.
"All the fire departments in other jurisdictions charge by the hour," he said. "It's not based on the size of the project. San Marino's charging $13,081 on average, which is several times more than it needs to be for cost recovery."
He went on to say that the high fees are not because of the fire marshal's required presence.

San Marino Compared to Other Cities
"Every jurisdiction I have talked to has been very reasonable," Newick continued. "The fire people are actually computing the fees correctly, and they're not gouging on their fee schedules. They're just charging for their time, which is usually only a few hours. They review the plans independently of the planning department, and some will do inspections, some won't. It depends."
San Marino has not been one of those jurisdictions that has cooperated with the Sierra Club's request to reconsider their permitting processes and evaluation and installation fees.
"I contacted San Marino in 2009 and this year to try to convince them to lower their fees, and they didn't," said Newick. "I went to the city clerk and sent both letters I wrote to all the city council members, requesting that they review their current fee calculation process. I'm hoping one of them will step up to the plate and see that their solar fees be reviewed and revised to their appropriate level."
According to Newick, the appropriate level is whatever that city needs to recover their costs. He said that $200 to $350 for residential projects and $300 to $3,000 for commercial projects would be appropriate, depending on the size of the project.
He praised cities such as nearby Sierra Madre in the county and other areas of the state that have or are considering lowering their permit fees. Recently, a after stories in Patch and other sources about San Marino's and other city's high fees were published.

The Future of Solar Fees
"I think Sierra Madre looking at lowering their commercial rates is great," said Newick. "At some point in the next few years there's going to be a crossover into grid parody, where solar will be less expensive than traditional energy, in which case there will be a lot more people installing small and large solar systems."
For that to happen, however, Newick said that it's really crucial and even required that local jurisdictions compliment state and federal solar incentives by having reasonable permit processes and fees so they're not a bottleneck to getting solar systems installed in their cities.
"The city and an independent entity needs to scrutinize how long the evaluations are taking and how much time is supposedly needed right now to approve a permit in San Marino," said Newick. "Someone needs to take a closer look at that."
Newick also mentioned that there are other organizations looking to standardize guidelines, such as the LA Basin Chapter of the International Code Council, that will enable all cities in LA County to have a streamlined solar permit submittal process and lower their fees. Osama Younan, an inspector who works for the City of Los Angeles, is working on permit guidelines for all LA County cities.
"They're trying to standardize what these permits look like in order to get them done more accurately and to lower costs," said Newick. "That's really going to be the solution here."

Council Passes Proposed Changes to 710 Resolution

Although the changes were few in number, they would essentially alter the city's long-standing position of opposing a freeway

By Justin Chapman, South Pasadena Patch, 7/7/2011

Opponents of the 710 freeway extension voiced concerns about proposed changes to South Pasadena's existing at the City Council meeting Wednesday.
Although the changes were few in number, they would essentially alter the city's long-standing position of opposing a freeway.
State legislators have told the city that the  will never happen, but they have yet to take it off the table. Ten has instead proposed to add phrases to the existing resolution that states the underground tunnel would be detrimental to the people of South Pasadena "unless and until an adequate environmental review shows" it is not.
During a conference call in the middle of this discussion, South Pasadena's litigation attorney Tony Rossman said the surface option would be taken off the table if the city agrees to support an environmental review of the tunnel route option.
"Since the surface route is not really being considered, though theoretically possible, South Pasadena gets nothing and for this nothing South Pasadena agrees to not fight the tunnel," Bill Sherman wrote to Patch prior to the meeting. 
Many people who spoke during public comment Wednesday expressed frustration and concern. The extra phrases are too vague and could potentially put the city back up against the wall, they said. 
"How can we as a city ask for an environmental review and sound research but at the same time say we're against any freeway extension?" Mary Ann Parada said.
Janet Irvine agreed.
"I'm opposed to the city even considering changing its position on the 710 extension in any form," she said. "We are weakening our position with no guarantee that we'll get anything."
After nearly two hours of debate and public comment on this item, Council member Philip Putnam finally made a motion to keep Resolution 7147 passed by City council in February while striking many of the "Whereas" clauses but keeping the vague phrases proposed by Ten.
Another "Whereas" clause was tabled to the next council meeting as a consent item, so staff could work out the details of the language. The modified resolution was passed unanimously.